• Women in Black Faces at the 2016 Australian Tennis Opens. (NITV)Source: NITV
COMMENT | Serena Williams 'fans' dressed up in blackface in support of her at the Australians Open and the incident has further raised questions on racism and the acceptability of blackface in Australia, especially in sports, says Luke Briscoe.
Luke Briscoe

4 Feb 2016 - 9:54 AM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2016 - 6:05 PM

"Not everyone putting on blackface may be doing it motivated by hatred or bigotry, but ignorance can cause harm as well. Racism is as much about impact as it is about intention. Malice isn't always required for hurt or humiliation to be inflicted."

Race Discrimination Commissioner, Dr Tim Soutphommasane told NITV that while a person may not set out to do damage by wearing blackface, it's not up to them to decide whether the act is offensive. "Unfortunately, some people don't understand why blackface may be racially offensive.

'Where do these people get off saying they're fans?'

Joe Williams, professional boxer, 2016 Wagga Wagga Citizen of the Year and Wiradjuri man, told NITV that the women's behavior displays a lack of respect. "Where do these people get off saying they're fans? Go out and buy yourself a Serena Williams shirt if you're a fan. I doubt they're fans in any case, and if I was Serena, I would have pulled them up and got security to kick them out."

Kevin Hylton, Professor of Equality and Diversity in Sport, Leisure and Education at Leeds Beckett University in the UK and Adjunct Professor at Victoria University says that whether spectators "see their acts as good natured is not the point. 

"It is more about what each act signifies in a society that implicitly understands that Black and minoritised communities in wider society and therefore in sport are systematically oppressed and subordinated due to 'race' and racism.

Unconscious bias and the 'Donald Sterlings'

This incident wasn't the first time mainstream Australia appeared to be out of step with wider values and measures of what's acceptable. 

In 2009 Harry Connick Jr. was a judge on Hey Hey It’s Saturday, and was deeply offended by a blackface skit featuring white Australians impersonating the Jackson 5.

With blackface receiving social media attention in the case of the Australian Open, and in the two young men from Ballarat who painted themselves up as Indigenous Australians for a dress up party, Australia is being labeled as a refuge for racist and bigots by outsiders. 

Taj Singh, the founder of WalkOff, an organisation that is focused on stamping out racism in sport and encouraging more diversity, says that "'unconscious bias' is a term that comes to mind regarding the female spectator who had a blacked-up face during Serena's Australian Open match.

"Was this fan being racist or just showing unconscious bias? As a London based project we are privileged to be in one of the most multi-cultural cities in the world. We believe that racism can be addressed if diversity is engaged in daily life. Sadly, from recent internet reports Australia has a huge problem with racial prejudice.

Lendale Johnson, US pro tennis player and WalkOff Ambassador was horrified and shocked that this happened in todays society and say's 'there are invisible Donald Sterlings in the world'.

"When I saw this image I was literally thinking 'wow, this is a horrific site to see.' I was shocked. It saddens me that people in today's society are still so ignorant. To me this means there's still a lot of intangible work that needs to be done regarding racism in sport.

"The root causes of racism are deep, more than people realise. There are invisible Donald Sterlings in this world," he said, referring to the former owner of the Los Angeles Clippers pro basketball team but was banned for life by the NBA after making racist comments. 

Professor Hylton said "the act of 'black face' is never without context and never benign. In Australia, racism can appear in an mélange of connected forms; conscious, unconscious, direct or indirect, institutional and structural."

Dr Mel Thomson, who alerted WalkOff about the incident via Twitter, tells NITV that she hoped someone in the crowd would say something. 

"Australians don't seem to have any boundaries in terms of racism. When I lived in the UK racism wasn't as obvious as it is in Australia. I don't normally call the institutions racists but I think they deserve it. I was clearly appalled and can't imagine how victims feel about this. I'm hoping that someone in the crowd said to the ladies 'you know that is racist'."

Mr Lendale tells NITV that he experienced racism in tennis even at an early age, but that the foundations provided by his family helped him to cope with it.

"My parents taught me how to shield myself from racism when I was a kid. I use what I have inside of me to protect myself from things in this world. Unfortunately yes; I have experienced racism playing tennis since I was a kid but I haven't let it stop me.

"Racism in sport is a passionate topic for me. I'm so happy Althea Gibson broke down barriers, but I feel there will always be social exclusion in tennis and sports in general. Einstein said it best when he said 'racism is a White mans' disease'."

As a professional athlete who works in mental health, charity and suicide prevention, Joe Williams says he sees the impact that racial discrimination has on communities. "Racism in Australia is trans-generational and I don’t think they understand the massive impact it has one us emotional, physically, spiritually and socially. Racism is definitely a determining factor when it comes to suicides and in particular, in the weeks leading up to it.

"Even racist rants online can trigger suicidal tendencies and disempower youth who see the posts.”

'Even racist rants online can trigger suicidal tendencies and disempower youth who see the posts.'

Dr Mel Thomson said, "When it come to the health and wellbeing of people who have been through incidences like this, I think it’s clear in my mind that it must make you doubt yourself and you may feel your self-worth decline."

Joe Williams says the key is to "keep this conversation going."

"The fact that there are these people making racist rants and comments online just confirms how far we got to go in terms of Reconciliation. I'm a big believer in Reconciliation but until we change the date and change the anthem we can't move forward."

Professor Hylton says racism "can be perpetuated if diminished, made light of or ignored.

"Sport has the power to bring people together, however, as in any walk of life, there is always the potential for it to reinforce intolerance, difference and privilege. We cannot have racism in society without racists and so we should expect multifarious guises of racism in sport while continually working to eradicate them."